Adam Driver Is Right, Disney Needs To Stop Redeeming Its Villains

in Disney, Entertainment

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren wielding his signature double-hilted red lightsaber in the 'Star Wars' Sequel Trilogy.

Credit: Lucasfilm

Recently, Adam Driver — perhaps accidentally — brought attention to a pressing issue that audiences have noticed in Disney’s newer film and TV releases while doing press for his upcoming movie, Ferrari (2023), in which he discussed his Star Wars Sequel Trilogy character, Kylo Ren (AKA Ben Solo). His comments about villain origin stories are particularly relevant today, as they come on the heels of an especially tough year for the House of Mouse, which undeniably suffered from the studio’s modern-day “big bad” formula — and it’s time they changed it back once and for all.

Kylo Ren wields his Lightsaber
Credit: Lucasfilm

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Adam Driver explains scrapped Kylo Ren arc

While the debate surrounding Disney’s recent onslaught of forgettable villains is hardly anything new, online discourse picked up after Adam Driver appeared on Tuesday’s episode of The Rich Eisen Show and revealed some eyebrow-raising secrets about his Star Wars baddie, Kylo Ren, and his original character arc. According to Driver, his character’s intended story, which would’ve kept him firmly on the Dark Side, was overhauled when Rian Johnson came aboard for Star Wars: VIII – The Last Jedi (2017), replacing Star Wars: VII – The Force Awakens (2015) director J.J. Abrams.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren unmasked
Credit: Lucasfilm

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In a sort of inverse of Darth Vader’s (Hayden Christensen) journey from the Dark back to the Light throughout George Lucas’ Original Trilogy, Kylo Ren was initially going to be “insecure” about his strength and abilities while leading the First Order in The Force Awakens, and would gradually become more evil by Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Instead, his Force “dyad” with Daisy Ridley’s Rey redeemed him in the end, but it wasn’t enough to save him from demise on Kef Bir:

I had an overall arc that in mind that [Abrams] wanted to do. His idea was that [Kylo’s] journey was the opposite journey of Vader, where Vader starts the most confident and the most committed to the dark side. And then by the last movie, he’s the most vulnerable and weak. He wanted to start with the opposite. This character was the most confused and vulnerable, and by the end of the three movies, he would be the most committed to the dark side. I tried to keep that arc in mind, regardless if that wound up not being the journey anyway, because it changed while shooting. But I was still focused on that.

Rey and Kylo Ren Lightsaber duel Star Wars
Credit: Lucasfilm

Kylo Ren is generally remembered as a tragic anti-hero, much like Anakin Skywalker. But from the sounds of it, he could’ve been even more menacing and powerful than the version we saw onscreen. In the end, because of Johnson’s last-minute changes to the character, Kylo evolved back into Ben Solo instead — a revelation that wasn’t in the script when Driver “first signed up for it.” Disney’s Sequel Trilogy remains controversial for many reasons, and this could explain why. Driver’s remarks caused criticism surrounding the movies to resurface, with Kylo Ren’s slow descent into madness being a huge missed opportunity for Lucasfilm in the eyes of many.

Reva is redeemed in ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’

As for Star Wars’ growing catalog of Disney+ originals, a similar villain arc to Kylo’s nearly took center stage in the Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries, which saw Ewan McGregor reprising his role as the titular Jedi Master. Picking up ten years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005), the show introduced many new characters into Star Wars lore. Perhaps most notable, however, was Inquisitor Reva (Moses Ingram), an Order 66 survivor hellbent on enacting revenge on the people she holds responsible for the slaughter of her Jedi peers — especially Kenobi, who she views as the key to Vader.

Moses Ingram as Inquisitor Reva
Credit: Lucasfilm

Although Hayden Christensen returned to play Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker for the first time in over 17 years, Reva was given a similar amount of screen time, though her villain arc wasn’t nearly as fleshed-out. Of course, it’s hard to hold a candle to Darth Vader’s redemption, which might be one of the best arcs in cinematic history. But Reva’s sudden change of heart moments after attempting to assassinate a young Luke Skywalker (Grant Feely) and his family was nothing short of jarring, making for an unsatisfying and messy conclusion for a character who seemed fully entrenched in the Dark Side — red lightsaber and all. It could be argued that Reva’s arc mirrors Vader’s in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), but she doesn’t spend enough time actively changing her ways to earn her happy ending.

Marvel hasn’t had a good villain since Thanos, and it’s not looking good for Kang

Look, the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) Phases Four and Five aren’t exactly living up to the expectations set by the widely loved Infinity Saga, but it’s not all bad. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) was, to many, a perfect mix of early 2000s superhero movie nostalgia, action, and drama, while Guardians of the Galaxy (2023) brought some much-needed heart into the mix. Still, the franchise is undeniably lacking a Thanos-level (Josh Brolin) threat, with forgettable villains like The Marvels’ (2023) Dar-Benn, Secret Invasion‘s Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman), the leader of the terrorist Flag Smashers organization in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Zawe Ashton as Dar-Benn powering up her arm for combat in The Marvels
Credit: Marvel Studios

Enter Jonathan Majors‘ Kang the Conqueror, who technically made his debut in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) but first appeared as a Variant of himself, He Who Remains, in the first season of the Disney+ Loki show. Kang is still set to take Thanos’ place as the MCU’s next big threat and will go up against Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Avengers: The Kang Dynasty (2026), but now, things remain uncertain.

Majors might not make it all the way through the Multiverse Saga, given he’s currently on trial for assault and harassment after allegedly attacking his ex-girlfriend earlier this year. Marvel has yet to make a public decision on whether or not the actor will reprise his role as Kang following these damning accusations, but suffice it to say, things aren’t looking too optimistic. His rumored recasting might send the studio scrambling to find a different antagonist altogether in time for the next Avengers movie and could spell disaster for the already-struggling franchise, as audiences generally enjoy Majors’ portrayal of Kang.

Modern Disney Villains Just Aren’t Memorable

Predictable motivations and — most importantly — lackluster villain songs

As for Disney, things just aren’t what they used to be when it comes to villains. While iconic baddies like Cruella de Vil (Betty Lou Gerson), Ursula (Pat Carroll), and Scar (Jeremy Irons) continue to be staples of pop culture today, newer antagonists, including Moana‘s (2017) Te Kā and King Magnifico (Chris Pine) from the more recent Wish (2023), don’t have the same swagger and calculated cruelty of their predecessors.

King Magnifico in Wish trailer
Credit: Disney

Are songs like “This Is The Thanks I Get?!” to blame? Not necessarily, but when compared to The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s (1996) “Hellfire,” it’s clear that Disney simply doesn’t make ’em like they used to. There are many reasons for this, like Disney trying to appeal to broader, family-friendly audiences and wanting to explore lighter subject matter. But even the newer villains’ driving motivations seem half-baked, at best, with every baddie having a hidden kindness that just needs to be unlocked through a little empathy, turning them into sympathetic anti-heroes like Abuela (María Cecilia Botero) in Encanto (2021).

Protagonists who never make bad decisions

It can be argued that a big reason why modern-day Disney villains aren’t resonating with viewers is that the protagonists never give in to their evil counterparts’ temptations. Snow White took a bite of the Evil Queen’s apple, Ariel sacrificed her voice to be with Prince Eric, and Anakin Skywalker sought the power Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) could give him…it’s a cautionary tale that pops up time and time again in literature. Meanwhile, a character like Asha (Ariana DeBose) never falters in their decision-making, and the only wrongdoing that ensues is simply a reaction to the mistakes of those around them. Only when a hero hits rock bottom can they begin to redeem themselves — something Disney seems to have forgotten.

Mirabel Madrigal in Encanto
Credit: Disney

It’s Time for Disney to Stop Redeeming Its Villains

There is no fight between good and evil

When thinking of the classic trope of “good vs. evil,” it doesn’t get more straightforward than Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). There’s not much to it — a down-on-his-luck protagonist (Mark Hamill) meets a wise mentor (Alec Guinness) who helps him unlock his full potential, saving the day by leading the Rebel Alliance to victory against the oppressive Galactic Empire. Nowadays, things are a bit more muddled, with anti-heroes being all the craze. Once again, Darth Vader’s story is one of redemption, but there’s still an evil villain who corrupted him in the first place: Emperor Palpatine.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker taking off Vader's helmet in Return of the Jedi
Credit: Lucasfilm

Newer Disney flicks like Pixar’s Turning Red (2022), which don’t necessarily feature murderous, “purely evil” supervillains, can be cathartic to watch, as they do touch on real social issues that many children experience today. However, escaping reality with a by-the-books hero’s journey story can be just as valuable. Learning life lessons is a key component of what makes movies so great, but sometimes, experiencing a fantasy world where morality is less confusing is just necessary — it’s all about simplicity, after all.

Disney’s redeemable villains are becoming predictable

As mentioned, it’s becoming too easy to predict a villain’s entire character development in modern-day Disney projects. Encanto, Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, WandaVision, and even Cruella (2021) have all fallen victim to the “redeemable antagonist” trope, which, especially in the case of Emma Stone’s nefarious baddie in Cruella, retcons the beauty of the original story. Still, the real world isn’t so black-and-white, as morality is far more grey than anything. Plus, all people have good and evil impulses, so what’s the point in pretending otherwise? 

Emma Stone as Cruella in 2021's 'Cruella.'
Credit: Disney

Well, simplistic, “pure evil” villains make for some pretty entertaining stories, for one. And just because they’re bad to the bone, it doesn’t mean they’re without their reasons. Thanos, for one, has borne witness to the sheer violence and cruelty of the universe around him and thinks the only way to achieve peace is through wiping out half of its population.

Although your average Joe hopefully disagrees with his methods, there is a grain of truth to Thanos’ sentiments — the world can be an ugly place, and oftentimes, feels hopeless. It’s in this sense that audiences can, to an extent, agree with him — even if his ways of achieving his goals are horrific and honestly, pretty over the top. This is Hollywood, after all.

Josh Brolin's Thanos in Endgame
Credit: Marvel Studios

Still, we know Thanos isn’t an anti-hero by any stretch, but his motivations are clear and straightforward enough for people to understand his line of thinking. He senselessly kills, manipulates, and acts in his own self-interest. Because of this, we naturally side with the Avengers, who are fighting the good fight and saving lives simply because they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s here that we realize that the world is, despite its ugliness, worth fighting for, and it makes us believe that it can be a better place. Sometimes, it takes a morally corrupt Mad Titan to get us to that much-earned conclusion and almost always makes for a satisfying ending. It takes truly evil forces to make us appreciate the good in the world.

“Pure evil” antagonists are fun!

It goes without saying that some of the best Disney villains aren’t all that scary, and rather, are just straight-up fun. Take Captain Hook, for example, who has been through many iterations since Peter Pan (1953). Hook is a campy, singsongy, swashbuckling pirate who’s not particularly menacing on the surface. However, his wit and clever manipulation forces Peter and Wendy into a life-or-death situation. Although the more recent direct-to-Disney+ film, Peter Pan & Wendy (2023), gives Hook more of a sympathetic backstory and, arguably, dilutes his original story, he’s fondly remembered today primarily for being a fun, endlessly quotable foe without too much backstory to weigh him down. He’s just evil — that’s it.

Captain Hook smirks in 'Peter Pan' (1953).
Credit: Disney

Simply put, recent Disney entries are doing too much. While Pixar’s Elemental (2023) was a touching examination of discrimination, generational trauma, and self-acceptance, it wasn’t exactly what audiences thought they signed up for when they flocked to theaters to see it over the summer. It’s just not satisfying to watch an introspective character study, even if it’s beautifully animated — especially for kids with increasingly shortened attention spans. Wish did take a step in the right direction with King Magnifico, but Disney should consider looking to J.J. Abrams for notes because his original plans for Kylo Ren could inspire a great, much-needed Disney villain in the long run.

Who is your favorite Disney villain? Let us know in the comments below!

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